Biorefinery facility launched to address biomass waste challenges, boost industry competitiveness

The South African government has launched a R37,5 million biorefinery facility in Durban, which is set to extract maximum value from biomass waste. The facility, which is a first for South Africa, will support innovation in a range of industries, including forestry, agroprocessing and other biomass-based industries.


The Minister of Science and Technology, Ms Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, launched the Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) campus in Durban today, 20 March 2018.


The initial focus of the BIDF is the forestry sector, which is under financial strain globally. Technological innovations have potential to help prevent job losses and enable growth in this sector.


Biorefinery in South Africa's pulp and paper industry is practised on a very limited scale. Wood, pulp and paper waste ends up in landfill sites or is burnt, stockpiled or even pumped out to sea.


The potential to extract value from this waste is not realised, which means lost opportunities for the country's economy. For instance, high-value speciality chemicals can be extracted from sawmill and dust shavings, and mill sludge can be converted into nanocrystalline cellulose, biopolymers and biogas.


The BIDF is the third Industry Innovation Partnerships (IIP) Programme facility to be launched by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and its entity, the CSIR. The other two are the Biomanufacturing Industry Development Centre and the Nanomaterials Industrial Development Facility. The IIP Programme is intended to support research and development programmes that enhance industry competitiveness.


Speaking at the launch, Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said a ministerial review of the science, technology and innovation landscape had highlighted several hindrances to the growth and strengthening of the country's national system of innovation. One of these was low levels of investment in research and development by the private sector.


"A key recommendation of the review report was that government needed effective measures and mechanisms to attract private sector investment in research, development and innovation (RDI)," said the Minister.


The IIP Programme is a response to this recommendation, as it stimulates increased co-funding and participation by industry players in RDI projects. Such projects are aimed at maintaining and increasing the industry's export market share, and at mitigating under-spending in technology and innovation in identified strategic sectors in the South African economy.


"Increased sector contribution to the GDP through stronger RDI-based industrial development is a key outcome," said the Minister.


Talking about the need for science to support industrial development, the CSIR CEO, Dr Thulani Dlamini, said making South Africa more competitive was at the heart of the CSIR.


"Our mandate requires us to use science and technology to contribute to scientific and industrial development, which will improve the competitiveness of the South African industry and create new industries. The CSIR is using innovation to contribute to economic growth and thus assisting in the fight against poverty, inequality and unemployment," said Dr Dlamini.


Prof. Bruce Sithole, CSIR Manager for Forestry Products, emphasised the potential of the BIDF to be of service to other sectors, for example, exploring the use of chicken feathers in high-value products.


Small quantities of waste chicken feathers are processed into feed for livestock, but the majority of the waste is traditionally disposed of by burning or landfilling. However, the BIDF is demonstrating that keratin can be successfully extracted from the poultry by-product to be used in high-value applications, such as nanostructured materials for biomedical applications.


"The BIDF is accessible to enterprises of all sizes for research and development, analytical and pilot-scale testing, and the development of technologies for processing biomass. Some of the equipment at the BIDF is not available anywhere else in South Africa. The facility is home to highly skilled chemists, engineers and biologists who are well-versed in technologies for the beneficiation and valorisation of biomass," said Sithole.


There is significant investment in building the skills required to support the sector. The CSIR has partnered with the University of KwaZulu-Natal to develop the skills and expertise that will enable and promote biorefinery technologies in South Africa.


Ms Jane Molony, Executive Director of the Pulp and Paper Manufacturing Association of South Africa, expressed confidence in the potential of the facility to make a meaningful contribution to the sector and the South African economy.


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